Andrew Bowie: Why this Conservative and Unionist government is right to scrap ‘English Votes’

13 Jul

Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party.

“The British constitution is a mess.” So declared my Politics lecturer in 2012, a German who simply could not understand our keenness to retain an uncodified set of rules and guidelines as our preferred method for governing a modern, 21st-century state.

Least of all could he understand the constitutional anomaly that was England and the English. Without a Parliament of its own, the largest and by far wealthiest part of our United Kingdom, seemingly allowed its laws to be determined by the votes of MPs who represented parts of the country where those laws would, seemingly, not apply.

This “West Lothian Question”, a phrase coined by Enoch Powell in 1977 after the anti-devolution Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, who hailed from that constituency, repeatedly raised the issue of whether MPs from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales should be able to vote on issues that were exclusively English.

It took until 2015 for the Cameron CGovernment to introduce measures designed to prevent MPs representing constituencies out-with England having a vote on so called “English Only Laws”. And so English Votes for English Laws (‘EVEL’) was born.

And it is, in my opinion, the most ill-conceived, wrongheaded and damaging measure ever passed by any Government in modern times, coming a close second to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. That is was introduced and championed by my Party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, is frankly mind boggling.

The argument that devolution was new and therefore needed some balancing so as to protect English laws from undue influence from those ‘rebellious Scots’ (or indeed, the Welsh or Northern Irish) is nonsense. Devolution has existed in the modern United Kingdom for far more years than it has not – from 1922 to 1972, no steps were taken to deprive Northern Irish MPs of their right to vote on areas that were seen to be devolved, even when those MPs deprived Labour of working majorities.

And why? In the words of then Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, Peter Thorneycroft, “every member of the House of Commons is equal to every other member of the House of Commons.”

That, I firmly believe. In our sovereign parliament of the United Kingdom, we representatives, drawn from across the whole of our United Kingdom are equal and entitled to vote on every piece of legislation placed in front of us.

EVEL created two tier of MP. As a Scot and a Unionist I found it grossly offensive to be informed I could not vote at certain stages of bills on education or health for example. For, as a Unionist, I care just as much about the welfare, health and education of people in Aldershot as I do about Aberdeen.

Now, of course I have heard the arguments that EVEL does not in fact prevent any MP from voting on a bill before the house, only that it gives English members the ability to veto certain legislation. But that is simply not true in practice- Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs do not have their votes counted at stages of a bill’s progress through the House. Therefore, my ability to influence legislation is taken away from me and other colleagues – in our sovereign parliament, where we are equal.

And, as has been pointed out by constitutional experts like Vernon Bogdanor, even this ability to veto poses a huge issue for governments in future that may command a majority across the UK, but not in England…it would be deadlocked, having its domestic legislation vetoed by an English dominated opposition – unable to pass legislation that affects the citizens of its largest constituent part!

And finally, whisper it, and don’t tell the Nats…but there is no such thing as ‘English Only Laws’. Thanks to Barnett consequentials, almost every single measure debated and voted on has financial implications for areas that appear, on the surface, to be wholly devolved. If we were, for example, to increase or indeed, decrease funding for something as innocuous and seemingly wholly ‘England Only’ as school sport funding, or smart motorways, the ‘block grant’ would increase or decrease by the amount determined by the Barnett Formula.

And as almost every law has some sort of financial impact, there is hardly anything that comes before us that does not affect the devolved administrations ability to spend more, or less, on their priorities.

Therefore EVEL is bad law. It doesn’t work and causes more problems than it solves. Let’s have more devolution in England – to our regions and localities. But let us not divide even further down national lines.

We are a proudly Unionist Party. This Prime Minister a proud Unionist. His instincts that we are all equal servants of our United Kingdom, in our sovereign Parliament of this United Kingdom are the right ones. He is right to move to revoke English Votes for English Laws and we, in supporting him, should declare that we will have no truck with separatism, nationalism and division.

And that we, Conservatives, support our Government’s agenda for our one nation – be that for the people of Cornwall or Caithness.

Andrew Bowie: Expanding regional airport capacity can help strengthen the Union, and support left behind communities

1 Jun

Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party.

While representing West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine in the House of Commons is a huge honour and a privilege, it’s quite the commute to the office. So, when you represent a constituency 398 miles “as the crow flies” from Westminster, you develop a new appreciation for just how important air travel is, particularly for those who want or need to travel to Scotland.

Scotland has, of course, long been a top tourist destination for travellers from around the world, particularly the beautiful North East I am lucky to call home. Whether it’s the thirteen stop “Castle Trail” through my own constituency, an even longer tour of the Speyside distilleries, or even a trip up to Banffshire’s famous “Dolphin Coast”, the North East is a fantastic place to live and visit.

Visitors from around the world clearly agree with this assessment. In 2019, before the impact of the pandemic, visitors to Scotland made 17.5 million overnight trips, with a total spend of £5.9 billion, the highest figures over the last decade according to VisitScotland. This represents a huge contribution to our GDP, with much of this money flowing in from the US, Europe and further afield.

Scotland’s heritage and natural beauty is a huge asset to the UK, one we should invest in to keep the “union dividend” rolling in for Scottish businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector who have been hit so badly by the pandemic. And while every visit to Scotland is a pleasure, business travel is also of paramount importance.

For example, without high quality, reliable air links, Aberdeen would not be the oil and gas capital of Europe it is today. The oil and gas industry isn’t just the beating heart of the local economy in the North East, employing many of my constituents, but is also crucial to the wider Scottish economy.

This is well understood across the Scottish political spectrum. The SNP’s 2014 economic plan for independence relied heavily on high oil prices and the continued exploitation of these resources. The subsequent downturn proved this would have been a disastrous model, but it does serve to underline just how central the industry is to Scotland’s economy.

With COP26 fast approaching, it might seem unfashionable to advocate for an industry widely demonised for its central role in the exploitation of fossil fuels. But what is not always widely understood in political circles is the huge contribution the oil and gas sector is making to achieving net zero, by developing and investing huge sums of money into clean renewable energy technology. When we reach net zero, as we will, we will have achieved it not despite the oil and gas industry, but in large part due to the incredible innovation and investment taking place in cities like Aberdeen.

The same is true for aviation – we cannot reach net zero without investing in sustainable air travel. As the vaccine rollout continues in the UK and around the world, many of us will be looking forward to a long overdue holiday, whether abroad or to another nation of our United Kingdom (the second paragraph of this article may have given you some ideas!). The demand for air travel is not going to disappear any time soon, and we should take the opportunity to make sure that the future of British aviation is sustainable, drives investment around the UK, and strengthens our precious union.

For this reason, I welcomed the UK Government’s Union Connectivity Review when it was announced, and eagerly await its recommendations. It is not enough to simply make sure that each part of the UK receives investment in transport infrastructure – we need a joined-up approach to encourage domestic travel around the UK, its nations, and its regions. If people cannot easily and quickly travel around the UK, they cannot enjoy everything it has to offer them. Without those opportunities and experiences, we run the risk of letting support for the Union stagnate when it should be growing.

The best way to do this, at the lowest cost to the taxpayer, is to support clean aviation growth by backing regional airports like Aberdeen, Bristol, and Belfast – particularly where they need to expand to increase capacity. Too much of our national conversation about airport capacity is focused on Heathrow and the other London airports, just as too much of Westminster’s time is spent talking to Westminster about Westminster.

Investing in sustainable aviation around the UK would be a fantastic way to show that we are a party and a government for the whole United Kingdom, as well as providing fresh opportunities for the Government’s levelling up agenda. Wherever there is investment in airports and the infrastructure which serves them, thousands of jobs and opportunities are created in the local area and further afield through the supply chain. Increasingly, as in the oil and gas sector, many of these are “green” jobs.

And while it is right that the Government spend money on levelling up in communities which have lacked investment for many years, it is important to remember that this doesn’t just mean spending in the “Red Wall” and the North of England. Communities that were left behind by Labour deserve to see investment and support. But we mustn’t take our eye off the ball in other parts of the UK, lest we repeat the mistakes of previous governments and create a new generation of left behind communities.

I’ve welcomed the measures the Government has taken over the last 18 months to support airline operators, particularly household names like British Airways – long-established great British brands we want to preserve. But other parts of the aerospace and aviation industries are suffering too, in what the industry body ADS called a “deepening crisis” earlier this year.

Rolls-Royce, another great British household name, made significant job cuts to its global workforce last year, as did Airbus. Both companies are big long-term investors in the UK and significant employers in the South West of England, a major hub for the British aerospace industry in general.

So, what is to be done? The Union Connectivity Review was a good first step and I eagerly await Sir Peter Hendy’s recommendations, to be published this summer. But in the meantime, we should be looking at what we can do in the immediate short term to increase regional airport capacity – getting ahead of the demand rather than trying to catch up. This means working closely with regional airports and investors who are willing to help build the infrastructure needed to increase capacity in a green, sustainable fashion.

And what we mustn’t do is uncritically accept the narrative that British aviation is incompatible with a net zero future – just as we’d be wrong to take that view of the oil and gas sector. The public want politicians to come up with sensible, balanced solutions to combat climate change. They won’t thank us for knee-jerk reactions or short-sightedness.

Andrew Bowie: That weekend poll and Scotland’s future. Until we start to call ourselves British, why should anyone else?

25 Jan

Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party.

A poll published over the weekend found that 40 per cent of Scottish voters under 34 reject any British component to their identity. Just one in five younger voters identify as equally Scottish and British.  The issue facing those who would keep our Union whole is simple: young Scottish voters just don’t feel British.

For those of us on the front line of this battle, the news came as little surprise. But it should shake up those who simply think this fight will be won by deploying the same ‘head over heart’ arguments – the so-called ‘Project Fear’ – that barely succeeded in winning the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence.

This was confirmed by another set of figures from the same poll. 42 per cent of Scots polled acknowledged that an independent Scotland would be worse off if independent. That same poll found 52 per cent favoured separation.

It is clear: this is a battle about identity.  And we are losing. Many ‘experts’ will be scratching their heads this week trying to find an answer to why young Scots don’t feel British. The question they should be asking is: what reason have they to? What possible reason should a young person feel British when even those of us in power recoil from using the term to describe our fellow citizens, our Olympic team, our policies, even ourselves.

Team GB. The UK Government. The Four Nation Approach.

We are asking people to identify with something we do not speak of.  Indeed, the only national institutions I can think of that retain the term ‘British’ in their title are the BBC and the British Army – and, in Scotland, even the Army’s twitter handle is @ArmyScotland. Anyone under the age of 30 doesn’t remember ‘British Rail’; most have no clue what ‘BT’ stands for other than just the name of another Broadband provider.

Is it any wonder that people in Scotland identify with its own, ‘Scottish Government’ – of Scottish people for Scottish people, far more than a corporate and distant ‘UK’ Government? Who feels ‘UK’? No one.

Language is important. The sense of belonging and ownership is important. The idea of a shared identity is important. Just see how in recent weeks the SNP has phrased the debate about re-joining the EU. It doesn’t say ‘Scotland Loves the EU’, it says ‘Scotland Loves Europe’. It doesn’t say ‘Scotland is a future Member of the European Union’ it says, ‘Scotland is European’ (ignoring the fact that of course, the entire island of Great Britain is European). It creates the idea of a shared identity, a sense of belonging. The Scottish people are European, like the French, the Germans and the Dutch. We have a shared identity.

Where is the same determination from the British Government – if it dares call itself that? Why are we not talking up our shared ‘British’ identity? Why do we not talk about the British Olympic Team? Why not the British people? Why do we talk about a four-nation approach and not a one nation approach?

We are four people in one. The British: a hotch-potch of backgrounds and identities but with shared values. We can be proud Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish, English. We can be proud Londoners or Aberdonians. Gay or Straight. Muslim or Christian. You can be a mixture of all of the above and more and still be British. That is the beauty of our brilliantly confused, melting pot of a country. It’s what makes us who we are.

And if you don’t like it, that’s fine. No one is forcing an identity on you. But those of us who will be desperately sad if our country is broken in two and who see ourselves as British should start by saying just that. We are British. And we are proud of it. And this is why… But until we do, why should anyone else. Until we start using the term again, why would anyone choose to identify with it?

Andrew Bowie: We need to rediscover the quiet strength of British patriotism

5 Sep

Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

It is ironic that one of the most distinctive British traits is a desire not to be seen to be overly patriotic. Not for us the flag waving, star-spangled brashness of our cousins over the pond; nor for the Brits the haughty, aloof self-confidence of our Gallic friends on the other side of the channel.

No, for us, a quiet, polite pride in who we are and what we stand for. Understated, unspoken, inoffensive, British.

A couple of minutes silence in November to commemorate our war dead; a parade one morning in early June to celebrate the birthday of the Queen; the closest the United Kingdom gets to national commemoration, celebration or recognition of who we are and what our nation has achieved.

Compare to the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris or the 4th of July fireworks in the USA.

Britain never needed these displays of greatness. Our nation was not forged from war or revolution, nor liberated from tyranny and fascism. Never have we suffered invasion and the indignity of occupation; we were not liberated from a foreign power. Never have we, unlike the Founding Fathers or Charles De Gaulle, had to reinvent ourselves, rebuild, or build anew our national identity.

To be British was understood; our greatness self-evident and accepted. We didn’t need to shout it from the roof tops. This is the country that abolished slavery, that fought with our Commonwealth, Empire, and allies to free the world from oppression, Nazism, and Communism; helped found the United Nations and NATO; and stood as a beacon for the poor and dispossessed of the world as a symbol of hope that good will, forever, overcome evil.

Of course, there are moments in our national story that we cannot be proud of. Our cities and empire grew on the back of the vile trade in human life long before we abolished it, and peoples across the world suffered from episodes of ill-judged and aggressive expansionism and exploitation at our hands and the hands of other European powers. We must understand and accept that in history, there is not, ever, one single view.

But I think, one of the glories of modern Britain is that have been, unlike many other countries with similarly blemished histories, confident enough in who we are to be able to reflect, debate, and discuss the rights and wrongs of our past without feeling ashamed of who we are or who what we represent.

So why this recent bout of uncertainty? Why this national vacillation about what Britain is? For what reason are we deemed to be in the middle of a culture war when in many ways the celebration of different cultures is what has made this country great since it was created through the binding together of our island in the Act of Union in 1707?

This week’s debate on whether or not the BBC should allow the singing of Rule Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms is symbolic of the national lack of confidence in ourselves. A lack of certainty in the future – in who we, the British, are. In what our country is and what we want it to be.

In Scotland, the SNP agitate for separation. On streets in our great cities, protests erupt and previous national heroes are held up as symbols of imperial oppression. People are questioning what Brexit means for our national identity. It is a time of confusion for many.

But I also know that this is a great country. A truly great country. A country that leads the world in so many ways. In foreign aid and charitable giving to the poorest on our planet. In combating climate change through government action, such as our determination to reach net zero carbon emissions or in the investment and research into green technology at our renowned research institutions. Our universities are the envy of most of the world. On the sporting field, in theatres, galleries, film and television and in technology, this country punches above its weight.

Our Armed Forces remain respected and relied upon by our allies, ready to fight and defend our friends and promote democracy and the rule of law wherever and whenever we are called upon to do so.

Ours is a tolerant nation. A proud multi-cultural nation. Survey after survey has found that Britain is one of the least racist and most accepting countries in the world. That is not to say that racism does not exist, and where it does we must call it out. but compared to many of our European neighbours, we are more welcoming and understanding than most. We are one of the most LGBT+ friendly countries in the world.

We have so much work to do. We must address our imperfections. We must examine this national downbeat mood. We must answer why we so lack confidence in who we are that our national broadcaster can contemplate not devoting fifteen minutes of one Saturday evening to a patriotic sing-song.

We must bring our country together; our people together. Uniting our country. That, for me, is the great challenge of this Government – of our generation. That is what ‘levelling up’ means.

I would not recognise a country that was more aggressively patriotic. More flags are not for me. I like the quiet, unspoken pride we share in being British.

But I am confident in Britain and our future. And if we can be confident in who we are and what our national mission is, then we have no need to erase our past. Let us instead build on it. Good and ill. Victory and defeat. Fair and unfair. It is our history. We should own it just as we own our future

Andrew Bowie: Evidence today that Ministers won’t negotiate trade deals that expose British farmers to unfair competition

29 Jul

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

As someone who believes in the levelling-up agenda and vision of a Global Britain, I am excited by our re-emergence as an independent trading nation. For the first time in more than 40 years, we are able to devise our own trade policy and export the best of Britain abroad in ways we haven’t always been able to.

As MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, home of the best beef, lamb and malting barley, I cannot wait to see more of our brilliant food and drink sold abroad. But as we develop our own agricultural trade policy once again, it is absolutely vital that the voice of the industry and the public are heard, and that their interests are advanced and protected.

Alongside many colleagues, that is why I welcome the government’s decision to set up the Trade and Agriculture Commission – which launches formally at an event in Whitehall today. Now is the right moment to step up engagement not just with the farming industry, but also with consumer, animal welfare and environmental groups across the UK.

The Commission includes representation from all these groups, and will be engaging more broadly with stakeholders like the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association, National Sheep Association, Food Standards Agency, and Tesco – all of whom are at today’s launch event.

The Commission will work with these and other organisations across the UK to ensure that the UK agriculture sector remains among the most competitive and innovative in the world. Its work will inform the fundamental principles of the UK’s agricultural trade policy, and provide expert advice to government on areas like increasing export opportunities, and on how Britain can remain a world-leader in animal welfare and environmental standards.

To her credit, Liz Truss has been clear that this government will stand up for British farming as part of any trade deal, and will never sign an agreement that means British farmers face unfair competition. I, for one, am reassured by that, and see this Commission as further evidence that the government is serious about taking expert advice and pursuing trade policy that benefits farmers and consumers.

We should be optimistic out there for some of the fantastic opportunities available to out UK farmers and producers. The US, for example, is the world’s second biggest lamb market – if we take a three per cent market share, it could boost lamb exports by £18 million a year. One in five agri-food and drink companies sell abroad, so there is a real opportunity to increase that number and sell more of our brilliant produce overseas.

We also have the opportunity to lead the global debate around agriculture trade policy and drive higher standards across the world. Our environmental and animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world. Leaving the EU actually gives us the freedom to engage the WTO on this issue and build an international coalition that pushes up standards beyond Britain. This is part of the work of the Commission.

Its establishment is a welcome step at a critical time for UK farmers and food producers, and will help ensure British farming and consumer interests are at the heart of UK trade policy.

Andrew Bowie: Our new Trade and Agriculture Commission will protect – and economically enhance – British farming

29 Jun

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

I grew up in Aberdeenshire – surrounded by some of the best farmland in the United Kingdom; home to some of the best produce in the world. The highest quality beef, lamb and malting barley was produced, quite literally, on my doorstep. Sitting now, as the Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, I am proud to represent these famers, the guardians of our countryside, the producers of our food and drink, in Parliament.

And as a Conservative, I am also proud to support our Government and stand behind its commitment to have 80 per cent of our trade covered by free trade agreements. This means that Aberdeenshire, Scottish and indeed British produce – salmon, beef, lamb, whisky and so much more could and should be enjoyed in every corner of the world.  

British farmers in particular have so many opportunities ahead of them: we have a £66 million opportunity for beef in the US, but it could be even bigger if tariffs of up to 26 per cent were dropped. As for British lamb, it’s currently banned from the US. Just a three per cent market share represent an £18 million opportunity. I want to see the great produce we make here in the UK, enjoyed across the world with all the benefits that can bring for British farmers and producers.

But too often, these opportunities and benefits that these deals might bring are drowned out amidst the noise, nonsense and mistruth peddled about the Government preparing to lower our import standards and undercut, “sell out” British farmers.

It is simply not true and utterly misses the point about the enormous economic benefit that free trade deals can bring to the farming industry and the British people. Indeed, it is our very high standards and quality of our produce that makes it so attractive to the outside world. 

We will always stand full square behind our farmers. And we will strain every sinew to enable farmers make the most of these new and exciting opportunities. And we will not allow our fabulous producers to be undermined due to their high standards. British farmers are, and will remain, competitive. 

That is why I am delighted to see that today, Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for Trade, has announced there will be a Trade and Agriculture Commission to provide expert advice in setting our agricultural trade policy.

The Government has listened and engaged, with the industry. We recognise and understand the concerns they have. It has listened to the National Farmers Union’s across England, Wales and Scotland, as well as the Ulster Farmers Union in Northern Ireland. We are determined to get this right for our whole United Kingdom.

And we agree that any trade deals the UK negotiates must be fair and reciprocal to our farmers; it must not compromise on our high standards. We are fighting for the interests of our farming community in every agreement that we negotiate.

As a newly independent nation, freed of the restrictions placed on us by the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy, we are deciding the shape of our own agricultural trade policy for the first time in over 40 years. This needs to consider the views of consumers and farmers to ensure that we have a sustainable and thriving agricultural industry. A Trade and Agriculture Commission can bring these voices together. 

Like ConservativeHome’s readers I do not support generating additional layers of bureaucracy. That is why the Commission will not be another quango or regulator.

It will have a clear set of objectives and be strictly time-limited. Once the Commission has finished its work, it will produce a report that will be presented to Parliament by the Department of International Trade.

The Commission will look at how we can ensure fair competition for British farmers in our trade agreements, while protecting consumers and developing nations. It will advise on how we can use the WTO to advocate for higher animal welfare standards internationally and identify export opportunities for UK farmers. It will advise on the best way forward for UK agriculture.

We must make the most of our new lease of freedom and strike trade deals far and wide and spread our produce to every corner of the earth. We’re Great Britain and we believe in free, and fair, trade. We’re just getting started.